I got into a minor disagreement with Foucault is Dead about Marx in this post over there. FiD argues that Marx is an essentialist, particularly about use value. Connected to this, FiD rejects the concepts of use value, exchange value, and surplus value. I don’t understand FiD’s supporting argument, in part because FiD is drawing on works by Baudrillard that I haven’t read and using concepts I don’t get.

The best reconstruction I can give of FiD’s argument is that FiD thinks Marx is reifying or naturalizing human needs in a way which implies an essentialist picture of what a human is and which in doing so imports – and in doing so, universalizes – a value laden concept of humanity, one which is actually contingent, relative and historical. FiD takes this argument from Baudrillard, and rejects the idea of use value because it is supposed to imply between needed use values and non-need use values. This is a misreading of Marx, as all use values are needed, by definition, and Marx doesn’t stipulate types or gradients of use values. He admits any need – “needs of whatever kind (…) whether arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference” in terms of their being use values. Anything which can be used by someone to do some activity has the use value of being useable in that activity. Marx does not list any criteria for the uses of objects in activities. Pick an activity. An object used in that activity will have the use value of being usable in that activity. One could say that this makes use value banal or tautological, but it’s not a matter of essentialism. Marx simply doesn’t address and doesn’t seem particularly interested in qualities inherent in objects when he talks about use values. He just looks at what people and have done with objects.

I’ve been doing a quick(ish) reread v1 of Capital recently, in preparation for finally finishing v2 and reading v3. I found some passages that support an argument that Marx isn’t an essentialist about use value. (Just to note, this isn’t the best argument in my view. The best argument in my view is that it doesn’t matter if Marx is an essentialist or not, that it’s the arguments not capital ‘M’ Marx – the theme, not the name, as Angela once said to me – that really matter. Those arguments, which are a selection from and interpretation of Marx, who wrote a lot and developed over the course of his career, are what matter and have some utility. Even if Marx was an essentialist, we could productively read him against the grain on this. Put differently, the best argument would emphasize that what one can do with Marx is much more interesting than the marxological question of the essence of Marx or what Marx’s intentions were for his own work or what Marx really meant. That said, I have a marxological inclination and I do care about what Marx meant, having a perhaps unreasonable affection for the old kraut, and so I proceed with what is not the best argument but I think one which holds.)

New commodities with new use values can and do arise over the course of time, the new commodity “is the product of a new kind of labour, and claims to satisfy a newly arisen need, or is even trying to bring forth a new need on its own account.” (201, Penguin edition.) Needs are what makes something count as a use value for Marx. Since new needs arise and old needs can pass away, needs and therefore use values are not fixed but dynamic.

Needs vary. “[T]he number and extent of (…) so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history (…) they depend on the habits and expectations with which” the individuals who have these needs have been formed. Marx is concerned with workers, but the point extends to capitalists as well (as in Marx’s discussion of hoarding and misers). Individuals are historically produced or conditioned, and this historical production varies geographically (Marx specifies “by country”, I would also add “by social strata”, in keeping with Marx’s remarks about the make up or composition of the class in terms of men, women, and children, among other factors). Needs are not fixed. Therefore use values required to reproduce labor power – means of subsistence – are not fixed. This is why “the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element.” (275.) Marx does specify that the average means of subsistence is knowable, but this is not an essentialist claim.
(Marx does not specify the total set of factors involved in the historical production or conditioning of individuals. One might object to this, stating that it’s incomplete or insufficient. It is not, however, an essentialist claim. The point of the claim of the historical conditioned-ness of individuals, like much of Marx’s claims about capitalism, is simply that the qualities in question came into being at some point in time and could pass away, that individuals and society are not always already as they are at present. Part of how individuals are produced is through consumption: “the product of individual consumption is the consumer” [290, just as “the usefulness of tailoring consists” in terms of use values “in making clothes, thus also people”, 150].)

Use value for Marx is a multiple. That is, one use value always co-exists with others. Every object is “capable of being applied to different uses” (288). It is the application of an object to some use by some user – or, more simply, it is the use of an object – which makes clear that the object has any given use value. Use values are retroactively posited after uses. Marx’s focus in terms of use values is more on varying practices of use than on objects. Marx is concerned with the latter in relation to the former, not the reverse.

So no essentialism here. If I had the motivation I’d try to expand this further as an argument against any need to talk about ontology in relation to Marx.

(Note to self, go over this passage later: The labor contained in a commodity “is past labour; and it is of no importance that the labour expended to produce its constituent elements lies further back in the past than the labour expended on the final process (…) The former stands, as it were, in the pluperfect, the latter in the perfect tense, but this does not matter.” 294.)